Tom Hulce as Mozart, left, and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, right from the film “Amadeus”
Friday, January 25, 2019
This Sunday, January 27, marks Mozart’s birthday.
How does one describe the extraordinary genius that was Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (as he was baptized)? He was born to a musical family, was exposed to music lessons and travel early on thanks to his stage father, Leopold, and possessed a freakish ability as early as age five to compose anything he set his mind to, seemingly without the struggle that most composers endure (Beethoven comes to mind). Be it symphonies, concertos for violin or piano, operas (the voice was his favourite instrument), or chamber music, Mozart could write it. He was one of the first composers to go freelance, a risky thing (has much changed?), going from project to project without the safety net of a patron that would commonly have a composer on staff. He made money, lost money, had a penchant for wild parties, food and drink, and often upset his stern father. He often jotted down overtures at the last minute, forcing the musicians to sight read from scores still damp from the ink. So much of his works were textbook, in terms of form and structure, but had that something extra, a divine quality unmatched by anyone else.
I remember when the film Amadeus hit the theatres, and I saw it a few times since. One of my favourite scenes was fellow composer, Salieri, portrayed as an admiring, yet deeply jealous rival, as an old man describing the opening of the Adagio from the Serenade No. 10 in B-flat Major, K. 361, the Gran Partita:
After seeing this scene, I finally got why some folks worship Mozart’s music. Don’t get me wrong – of course I know his music was beyond genius. His slow movements ached with a lyricism that astounded me. Yet Mozart remained a bit of a conundrum to me as a piano student. I constantly alternated between his sonatas and Beethoven’s. When I was tired of attempting elegance and perfection, I longed for Beethoven; when I was tired of thundering around, depicting thunderstorms and torment, I longed for the (seeming) simplicity of Mozart. Performing Mozart was a whole other thing altogether. He could string together a gorgeous line with the fewest of notes, leaving you feeling painfully exposed – a wrong note is unforgivable in Mozart. My singer friends have confirmed this as well – and to feel exposed as a singer – who IS the instrument- is way more nerve-wracking than what any instrumentalist would feel.
In this scene near the end of Nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro), Count Almaviva begs forgiveness from his wife (for being such a jealous, untrusting husband) in this gorgeous aria entitled “Contessa perdono” (“Countess’ forgiveness”). Again, Salieri’s character is used to vocalize what Mozart fans love – the perfection of Mozart’s lines and phrasing. (Please ignore the yawn from the ignorant Emperor at the end).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born January 27, in Salzburg, Austria, and died December 5, 1791, in Vienna.
Listen out for special programming throughout the day, featuring Mozart’s music this Sunday on The New Classical FM.